Dianne Morales veers from mayoral pack on Gaza

As she runs to the left of the field, Morales admits to ‘really complicated feelings’ about Israel

Donning their foreign policy hats, candidates in New York City’s hotly contested mayoral race were quick to weigh in as violence erupted between Israel and Hamas this week. “I stand proudly with Israel,” former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire pronounced Monday evening in a statement later echoed by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. Andrew Yang, the apparent frontrunner who has earned key endorsements from several Orthodox Jewish leaders, also made sure to signal his unwavering support for the Jewish state. “I’m standing with the people of Israel,” he said, condemning “the Hamas terrorists.”

The lone dissenting voice was Dianne Morales, the outspoken former nonprofit executive who, by varying degrees, has positioned herself to the left of every leading candidate in the crowded Democratic primary field. “Our world needs leaders who recognize humanity and the dignity of all lives,” Morales wrote on Twitter early Tuesday morning. “Whether in NYC, Colombia, Brazil or Israel-Palestine, state violence is wrong. Targeting civilians is wrong. Killing children is wrong. Full stop.”

With her statement, rhetorically limp by pro-Israel standards, Morales demonstrated that she is willing to stray from the pack on an issue where most mainstream Democratic candidates in New York, home to the largest Jewish population in the United States, are usually aligned. While the majority of her opponents identify as solidly pro-Israel, Morales has veered in the opposite direction.

During a private virtual event with Jewish high school students last December, for instance, Morales accused Israel of “apartheid” while describing a 2015 mission sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York as “propaganda,” according to leaked audio obtained by The Forward

“I’ve been to Israel, and I participated in what would be considered a propaganda trip,” Morales said bluntly in the recording. “The country is beautiful, so I understand why everybody wants a piece of it. That being said, I believe that Israel is an apartheid state. I think that is highly problematic. I cannot advocate for equity and justice in New York City and turn a blind eye to the challenges around those issues in Israel and with the folks living in Gaza and in Palestine.”

Dianne Morales at a march for transgender rights. (Courtesy)
Dianne Morales at a march for transgender rights. (Courtesy)

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, however, Morales seemed hesitant to invoke the same feisty rhetoric. “The first thing that’s really important to say is that I really appreciate the opportunity to have taken that trip,” Morales said of her week-long excursion with the JCRC, which has been leading missions to Israel for more than two decades. “JCRC does really incredibly important work for the community of New Yorkers around leadership development and advocacy for the Jewish community, and I certainly look forward to continuing to support that work as mayor.”

But Morales admitted to harboring “really complicated feelings” about her visit. “I see myself as a champion for equal rights and protections under the law,” she said, without making mention of  “apartheid.” “I don’t think any child should be denied the right to a home or to their full potential and that everyone deserves to be free of state violence.” 

Even having softened her views somewhat, Morales’s public and private comments would almost certainly have come at a cost in previous mayoral races. Instead, it is Yang who has drawn intense feedback for his pro-Israel views. After his Monday night tweet, Yang found himself uninvited from a Ramadan event as pro-Palestinian activists disrupted a campaign stop in Queens. “Utterly shameful,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said of Yang’s comments.

By Wednesday morning, Yang had clarified his initial statement, sending out a white flag of contrition to his 1.9 million Twitter followers. “I mourn for every Palestinian life taken before its time as I do for every Israeli,” he said in a lengthy statement. 

“I’ve been to Israel, and I participated in what would be considered a propaganda trip,” Morales was recorded saying. “The country is beautiful, so I understand why everybody wants a piece of it. That being said, I believe that Israel is an apartheid state. I think that is highly problematic. I cannot advocate for equity and justice in New York City and turn a blind eye to the challenges around those issues in Israel and with the folks living in Gaza and in Palestine.”

Adams, too, has faced some criticism for defending Israel in the conflict with Gaza. Earlier this week, the Muslim Action Network announced that it was pulling its endorsement of Adams, claiming he had “failed to take a principled stance.”

For her part, Morales appears to be gaining a modicum of momentum as she slipstreams behind New York’s ascendant far-left, which has carved out prominent footholds at the state and federal levels in recent years. “We’ve been defying all kinds of expectations and also bucking the traditions as to what criteria you need to have in order to be considered viable or a contender,” she told JI. “This campaign is, in fact, resonating with New Yorkers.”

That boast comes with some supporting evidence. Having lagged behind her opponents in most polls, Morales suddenly found herself in third place with 12% of the vote, just four points behind Adams, who topped the list, according to a survey commissioned by the Hotel Trade Council’s political arm and released earlier this week. Those numbers suggest that the June 22 Democratic primary remains in flux as underdog candidates like Morales and Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation chief who received a surprise endorsement from the The New York Times on Monday, show signs of life. 

Further scrambling the dynamics, Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and until recently the leading progressive candidate in the race, was rocked by allegations of sexual assault that have hobbled his once formidable campaign. Morales, who has called for Stringer to withdraw his name from the ballot, believes his embattled position has likely pushed some voters to her side as she notches new endorsements that would otherwise have gone his way. 

“I think it’s freed people up who might have felt indebted to him to feel like they can back me or support me or be louder about supporting me,” Morales said, while making sure to add that her grassroots campaign would be cresting with or without the scandal. “We’re just starting to surge,” she said. “The groundwork for that has been laid over the course of the last year.”

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Morales, a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, announced her campaign last November with the hope of becoming New York’s first Afro-Latina mayor. A former employee in the city’s Department of Education, she served for a decade as the executive director and CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, an affordable housing nonprofit in the Bronx, before seeking office as a first-time candidate. “I spent my entire career actually working on the ground,” said Morales, casting herself as a candidate of the people, “helping communities that have just been historically disenfranchised, underserved, marginalized.”

“She was the most believable, transparent candidate that I met,” said Harvey Epstein, a state assemblyman in Manhattan who endorsed Morales in March. “She had a plan that was achievable and she had a track record that proved she could get things done.”

The platform Morales puts forth is unapologetically progressive, including a municipal Green New Deal, a public bank for underserved New Yorkers and a plan to provide free college education through the city’s public university system.

“She is predictably consistent on the left side of the spectrum,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, “opposing screens in school admissions, looking toward a highly collaborative form of school governance that gives greater weight to community education councils and parents than most other candidates have indicated.”

Perhaps most notably, Morales is the only candidate in the race who wholeheartedly supports defunding the police. “I understand that the language of defunding is scary to some,” she acknowledged. “But what it really means is that we need to be investing in alternative services and supports for our community members.”

After a shooting in Times Square last weekend, most candidates struck a balance in their messaging on public safety, calling for robust policing while emphasizing a need for reform. But Morales rejects such rhetoric, notwithstanding a violent crime surge that has put many New Yorkers on edge as the city emerges from a destabilizing pandemic. “We’ve seen the escalation in violence despite the fact that there actually has been no real decrease in policing, despite the fact that Times Square is one of the most heavily surveilled communities in the city,” she argued. “I think that we have to debunk the idea that the police are actually creating safer communities.”

Morales advocates for a “multi-pronged” response amid an uptick in hate crimes against Jews and Asian-Americans. “I think antisemitism, anti-Asian violence, anti-Black violence, all of these things are rooted in white supremacy,” she said, while advocating for a humanistic approach to public education that embraces differences. “From a social perspective, I think we need to meet the needs of communities,” Morales continued. “I think the systems right now pit communities against each other and fosters this sort of us-them dynamic, and we need to actually counter that and really sort of lift up this perspective of solidarity and combating these things together.”

Dianne Morales at a rally for Breonna Taylor. (Courtesy)

“I truly believe that all communities that have been historically marginalized or oppressed or harmed deserve to be centered and prioritized moving forward, and to me, that includes the Jewish community,” Morales said, adding: “I understand the history of oppression and discrimination and exclusion and the fear that so often can instill in people. I’m committed to actually creating a safe city for all of us to coexist peacefully and with dignity.”

Morales’s message appears to be falling on receptive ears. Her coalition, she says, represents a diverse patchwork of New York City’s voting populace, including teachers, LGBTQ voters and Hispanic women. Unemployed workers, according to Morales, make up 30% of her donor base. Morales has also been buoyed by a passionate young fan base of volunteers as well as digitally savvy supporters who are enthusiastically promoting her campaign on social media.

Last month, Morales notched an endorsement from the Jewish Vote, the political arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, whose 6,000 members live mostly in New York. “We want to make sure that the next New York City mayor is fighting to really transform New York City and fighting for people who are working-class and fighting for racial justice,” Sasha Kesler, who sits on the Jewish Vote’s steering committee, told JI in an interview. “Dianne fit the bill.”

“We want a mayor who takes a firm, principled stance against forms of state violence, militarism and abuse,” Kesler added, expressing her appreciation for Morales’s recent comment on the conflict between Israel and Gaza. “That’s what she said in her message.”

JFREJ says it remains neutral on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, only opposing efforts to criminalize BDS on free speech grounds — and Morales echoed that view in conversation with JI.  “We should not create an environment that penalizes people’s right to organize and protest,” she said, adding: “That being said, that doesn’t mean I support hate or fear mongering or antisemitism. I don’t think that those two things are one and the same.”

“I truly believe that all communities that have been historically marginalized or oppressed or harmed deserve to be centered and prioritized moving forward, and to me, that includes the Jewish community.”

Asked for her personal stance on the BDS movement — which is rejected by almost every mayoral candidate in the race as well as by a number of the most progressive candidates now running for public office across the country — Morales was noncommittal. “As a candidate and the mayor of New York City, it’s less important what I believe than what I’m going to uphold for New Yorkers,” she said. “I am going to uphold that it not be criminalized.”

Morales was equally hesitant to weigh in on a controversial questionnaire, distributed last summer by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, asking that City Council candidates pledge not to visit Israel. “I never actually saw the questionnaire,” she said. “But what I understood was that it was just poorly worded.”

Morales said she was open to visiting Israel again if she is elected —  something of a rite of passage for New York City mayors. Bill de Blasio, the outgoing two-term mayor, toured the Jewish state on a 48-hour trip in his second year in office. But Morales made clear that any future visit would likely be on her own terms. “I’m not opposed to visiting Israel,” she said. “I would want to do that independently rather than through any kind of sponsored trip because I think it’s important to being able to maintain my own sort of independence, judgment and decision-making.”

Ultimately, Morales was reluctant to discuss such issues in much depth, despite her apparent readiness to speak out on social media and in at least one private forum. “I don’t want to distract from the race that I am in,” she said. “If I had wanted to get mired in the international stuff, I’d probably run for a different thing.”

But while New York City mayors wield no direct influence over foreign policy, Morales may discover that the scope of the job is broader than she expects. 

“There was a time in New York City politics, years back, that if you ran for mayor you had to go immediately and visit the three ‘I’s: Italy, Ireland and Israel,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant in New York. “Now the ethnic population has shifted, so what’s left? Just one ‘I,’ and that’s Israel.”

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